CENTRAL VALLEY — Drug fads come and go in California. But not methamphetamine. This highly addictive, widely available, dangerous drug has been a 20-year scourge that shows little sign of abating, especially here in the Central Valley.
There are multiple ways to assess just how deep and wide is the chaos caused by meth in our community. Consider:
35 percent of the 2,034 people who entered licensed and certified treatment programs in the year ending in June named meth as their drug of choice. Stanislaus County's meth rate was significantly higher than the statewide rate listed by people entering treatment. A top official with county Behavioral Health and Recovery Services said meth has held this dubious No. 1 distinction for many years.
What are the reasons for Modesto's repeat appearance at the top of the national list for auto theft? Meth is a big factor. "There's a notorious methamphetamine problem in this state," said Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. "Where you have a lot of drug problems, police will tell you, you have a lot of property crimes. It's like peanut butter and jelly."
In May, during a question-and-answer interview on multiple topics, JoLynn DiGrazia, executive director of Turlock's Westside Ministries, was asked what she saw as the biggest challenges facing her area, particularly its youth. Her response: "The continual battleground is methamphetamine use. The property crimes go along with it."
In Modesto alone, there were 1,618 meth-related arrests in the last two years, according to the Modesto Police Department.
In the first six months of 2013, the Stanislaus County district attorney's office filed charges in about 6,700 cases. Of those, 1,807 nearly 27 percent involved what are known as schedule 3, 4 and 5 drugs, of which meth is by far the most common, said District Attorney Birgit Fladager. Of those drug cases in the first half of the year, 1,008 were for simple possession, 96 were for possession for sale, 59 for selling or transporting drugs and 14 for manufacturing drugs.
The drug case count is up from the same period in 2012, when there were 1,582 cases filed with drug-related charges.
Fladager and Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson both say that the drug cases don't tell the full story, because a meth addiction might be what motivates a person to steal a car or commit a burglary. If the person does not possess meth when arrested, it won't show up as a drug case, even though that's the root cause.
"It's safe to assume there's an element of meth in many of the crimes we investigate, primarily property crimes," Christianson said.
Compared with 2000, when the McClatchy newspapers in California teamed up on a special report called "A Madness Called Meth," there are fewer big busts today and fewer labs causing major ground pollution problems. The reduction in labs is partly due to state laws that have the precursor drugs, notably pseudoephedrine, harder to purchase a change that also has made it less convenient for the average consumer to buy cold and allergy medicines.
While there are fewer labs producing meth in the valley, it is readily available. Most is brought in from Mexico.
The demand also hasn't subsided because meth is relatively cheap, especially compared with a drug such as cocaine. Street dealers, many gang-related, sell meth for $20 to $30 for a "teener" (one-sixteenth of a gram).
Meth also is virulently addictive. An undercover agent told The Sacramento Bee that people get addicted so fast and some get so desperate that they will fry their own urine in a pan to extract meth crystals.
Tweakers those who use meth day after day exhibit poor judgment, strange sleeping patterns, agitation, confusion, anxiety, paranoia and sometimes violence.
Stories of the extreme behavior of people on meth make the news, such as an armed man who confronted a parishioner at Sacramento's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, taking his cell phone and wallet. He was "experiencing a mental episode" as a result of using meth. A woman driving under the influence of meth ran over and killed a 6-year-old boy walking to school and injured his 8-year-old brother. In May, a 31-year-old Oakdale mother was sentenced to nine years in prison for using methamphetamine while she was breast-feeding, which resulted in the death of her infant daughter.
The collateral damage from meth use is routinely visible to social workers from Child Protective Services. A Stanislaus Behavioral Health official says meth use has become so commonplace that officials don't talk about its prevalence.
Meth reaches across the demographic landscape: urban and rural; men and women; white, black, Latino and Asian. Experts who deal with the effects of meth agree that we need a three-pronged approach: prevention, treatment and disrupting the market by going after the manufacturers and distributors.
All came under hard times during the Great Recession. Police and sheriff's departments downsized or shuttered their narcotics units.
Voter-approved Proposition 36 in 2000 diverted those convicted of nonviolent drug possession offenses to drug treatment, but the money ran out after five years. Others challenge whether Proposition 36 was ever a wise strategy because participants took the treatment option so casually. Drug court has been a much more effective strategy because the convicted addicts are closely monitored and faced graduated sanctions for relapses.
People who commit crimes need to be held responsible for their behavior, but people with substance abuse problems also should have treatment options available as part of the consequences.
But the best and least expensive answer is education and prevention steering people, especially youngsters, away from meth by making them fully understand that it is a dangerous and destructive drug that can ruin their lives.
With attention and focus on front-end strategies that work, Californians and the valley can take on this 20-year scourge a quality-of-life issue for us all and a life-and-death issue for far too many.